Ole Miss' Jacob Gonzalez Develops Into Premier Shortstop, Likely Top-10 Pick
OXFORD, Miss. — Jacob Gonzalez has started every game at shortstop for Mississippi since he arrived on campus in the fall of 2020. He’s played shortstop for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team the last two summers, was first-team all-SEC in 2022 and this year was voted first-team Preseason All-American by MLB scouting directors. He’s projected to not only be the first shortstop drafted in July but also is expected to be in the mix to be the No. 1 overall pick.
Not bad for a player who, coming out of high school, was known for his hitting prowess but was widely projected to have to move off shortstop to third base.
“Everybody, I thought, believed in his bat coming here,” coach Mike Bianco said. “Not that he had a bad glove, but I don’t know that everybody thought he would stick at shortstop. But he has. He’s terrific.”
Gonzalez is on the bigger end for a shortstop at a listed 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, and he hasn’t played shortstop his whole life, coming to the position full time only during high school. So, skepticism about his defense three years ago was understandable and helped push him to college in the shortened 2020 draft.
Because Gonzalez is a California native, the Ole Miss coaching staff wasn’t able to see him play as often as it would a more local recruit. The coaches liked his defensive ability, but they’d heard the same pessimistic projections about his future at shortstop. In the fall of 2020, Ole Miss was evaluating all of its options on the left side of the infield after losing both shortstop Anthony Servideo and third baseman Tyler Keenan in the draft.
Bianco remembers “an army” of players working out at shortstop at the start of fall ball, including Gonzalez. It took only a few weeks for Gonzalez to differentiate himself.
“I remember (hitting coach Mike Clement) talking about, ‘He catches it better than everyone else there,’ ” Bianco said. “The hands are just cleaner, the ball gets to his glove more often than everybody else, he doesn’t miss balls, he’s got plenty of arm, it’s very accurate and you knew the instincts and all of that were a given.
“So, I think pretty early on (we realized it), but not coming in.”
Once the games started for real that spring, Gonzalez wasted no time showing the rest of college baseball what to expect. On the big Opening Weekend stage of the State Farm College Baseball Showdown at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, he went 4-for-11 with a home run and three runs, helping Ole Miss rise to No. 1 in the Top 25 for the first time ever. He’s never really slowed down, racking up individual accolades and last season helping the Rebels win the College World Series.
Now, Gonzalez enters 2023 as a likely high first-round pick. Ole Miss has never had a position player drafted in the first round and he could become the highest drafted player in program history (Drew Pomeranz, fifth overall in 2010). None of that is yet of much concern to Gonzalez, however.
“I don’t really think about the draft because, I mean, it’s not real,” he said. “All the stuff I see about it, I have to make it real.”
That attitude fits with Gonzalez’s quiet, no-nonsense approach to the game, on and off the field.
“He’s such a mature player in general,” second baseman Peyton Chatagnier said. “He doesn’t talk about the draft; he doesn’t bring that up. We’re the guys that bring it up and tell him he’s the Preseason All-American or projected to be whatever in the draft. He doesn’t really pay it attention. I think that’s why he’s so good. He puts his head down and he works.”
Chatagnier and Gonzalez are in their third season as double-play partners. Their longevity and defensive ability is rare in the college game and makes for a strong advantage for the Rebels as they look to build on last season's success.
“We’ve grown even more comfortable together,” Chatagnier said. “Even our double plays are better, just our communication and awareness of where we are in the field and everything like that. It’s good to be able to have a duo like that and be able to play for a while, it just helps out your chemistry.”
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Gonzalez has continued to evolve during his time at Ole Miss. As a freshman, he stood out offensively for his hittability and batted .355/.443/.561 with 12 home runs. As a sophomore, the lefthanded batter tapped into his power a bit more and hit .273/.405/.558 with 18 home runs. Through it all, Gonzalez maintained his approach at the plate, walking more than he struck out in both years, a skill that ticked up in 2022 when he walked 50 times and struck out 32.
Gonzalez has made strides defensively, as well. He has a strong arm, reliable hands and has the ability to make highlight-reel plays. He’ll probably never be the rangiest defender at shortstop, but he is building a strong skill set for the position.
“He’s a guy that continues to get better in all facets,” Bianco said. “He worked really hard defensively; and I think that’s his most underrated tool that I think is a plus tool but people don’t give him enough credit. I think it’s more not because of what they see, I think it’s more because the offensive prowess is so great and then they look at the big body at shortstop, people just assume. But he’s a guy that can really catch it as well.”
Throughout his career, Gonzalez has been at the heart of everything Ole Miss does offensively. But with players like Justin Bench, Tim Elko and Kevin Graham moving on from the national championship team, Gonzalez has truly become the lineup’s focal point in his junior year.
As he takes on an even larger role, Gonzalez is driven by the goal of winning another national championship.
“The only reason I love playing baseball—I mean, obviously baseball is fun—but I love to win,” he said.
The Rebels won big last year, ending the season in a dogpile in Omaha, celebrating their first national championship (Gonzalez said he and his family continued the celebration later that evening with ice cream at Sonic). With Gonzalez at the heart of the infield, they have the potential to win big again in 2023.